In general, the postgame comments from both sides pointed toward the number of calls at critical moments that favored Stockton. Specifically, the first-period whistle that negated Geoff Walker’s goal, which Karl Taylor said his team was still thinking about as Stockton built a 4-1 lead late in the first period.
But there were a mountain of postgame comments, a variety of opinions and emotions and tangents to go off on about the conclusion to the Reign’s inaugural season. For now I’ll leave you with the key points from the third period that won’t make it into tomorrow’s editions. Check back with this blog if you’re still in the mood for said tangents tomorrow.
(And oh, by the way, Las Vegas successfully closed out its first-round series on home ice against Bakersfield, and will play the Thunder in the second round.)
You could say the Reign owned the third period, outshooting Stockton 18-7 and outscoring them 3-1. But that might take something away from Parker Van Buskirk, the Stockton goalie who got the game’s first star and probably should have been scored upon in the final minute.
It all started when Jeff Zatkoff made it to the bench at about the time Jeff Pope announced there was one minute left in the third period. The Reign were engrossed in their first scrum at the mouth of the net, hacking and stabbing at the puck, which Van Buskirk refused to let past. He never got it covered up, however, the puck squirted out to the goalie’s right, and Stockton pushed it up along the boards with a distinct chance at an empty-net goal.
David Walker made sure that wouldn’t happen by beating Cory Urquhart to the puck as it angled behind a vacant Reign goal. After Walker got the puck into the Reign zone, it never left. They had probably 10 scoring chances in the final 20 seconds. The most obvious was a Grade-A look by in the left circle for Bud Holloway — momentarily the ECHL’s leading playoff scorer (14 points), for whatever that’s worth — but he fanned on the shot and it trickled weakly off to the side of the net.
That merely gave the Reign a chance to dump it into the crease where, by the 0:10 mark, everyone seemed to be hacking and stuffing the puck toward Van Buskirk.
It was easy to forget in the moment that this guy was here only because Andrew Perugini got injured midway through Game 1 in this same building — which, at the time, seemed like an awful break for Stockton. Regular backup Bryan Pitton didn’t do well in Games 2 and 3 (his GAA was north of 5.00) before emergency backup Van Buskirk made his third professional start ever in Game 4, and responded with his first pro win. It was a desperate move at the time, and it worked beyond Matt Thomas’ wildest dreams.
Getting back into the moment … it was hard to tell exactly how many shots the Reign put on net in those final seconds. All we could tell from the press box is that one of them got close enough to the goal line that Brad Mehalko raised his hands, thinking it went in, while another was close enough that the man in stripes standing over the net deliberately and frantically waved the “no goal” signal. Mehalko said afterward that he thought someone else had scored but, no, when the whistle finally blew on the play, it was because someone thought Mehalko was guilty of cross-checking. A lousy place to watch your season end from, the penalty box, but all too appropriate in this game.
The clock was rolled back to 4.0 seconds, the faceoff came all the way back into the Reign zone, Zatkoff stayed on the bench with the teams now skating 5-on-5, the Thunder controlled the faceoff and that was it. Game over. The Reign lingered in their own zone, some choosing to embrace, while the Stockton bench emptied to congratulate Van Buskirk on the opposite end of the ice. This drew about as many boos as a crowd of 3,466 can muster.
Eventually two lines formed on opposite ends of the rink for the traditional postgame handshake, with each head coach at the back of the line. This was conducted peaceably. Like they have done after each win but have never done after a loss, the Reign circled up at center ice and raised their sticks to the crowd. The boos turned to cheers. The Reign’s inaugural season was over.